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Reality check for Indo-Trinidadians

Monday, May 28, 2018

May 30, 2018, will signify the 173rd anniversary of the arrival of the first group of indentured workers from India to these shores. There is no gainsaying that this first arrival, which was the precursor to a steady stream of migration from India over 70 years, was an event of huge historical significance for the evolution of this society into the uniquely diverse, plural, multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-cultural country that it is today.

In order to commemorate this historic event, I had proposed in Parliament way back in 1989 that May 30 be declared a public holiday to be known as Indian Arrival Day. The final proclamation of the holiday with this specific name was made in 1996. It was my view then, that the holiday would serve not only to celebrate this event and the outstanding aspect of our diverse heritage and antecedents which it signified but would also be an occasion for sober reflection on the current status of Indo-Trinidadians.

Today, 22 years after the declaration, there is hardly any noteworthy celebration except for a modest parade and function organised by the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha. On this day we are regaled with some run-of-the-mill, self-congratulatory messages, speeches and commentaries but no critical assessment of the current reality faced by the Indo-Trinidadian community.

Some may argue that Indo-Trinidadians are not a homogeneous group as they are divided by religion, class, region and even generational issues. I submit, however, that there is sufficient commonality of values, beliefs, propensities and perspectives to regard Indo-Trinidadians as a distinct community. Others argue that we should disavow and reject any focus on race and ethnicity because such an endeavour merely promotes divisiveness, divided loyalties and anti-national thinking.

The reality, however, is that all ethnicities proclaim their respective group identities in one form or another. For example, Afro-Trinidadians turn out in conspicuously large numbers to engage in vibrant celebration of Emancipation Day, other events and even a film such as Black Panther. Moreover, their ethnic sentiment is galvanised by reference to historical oppression and dispossession and even claims of present-day discrimination as routinely expounded in the press by letter writers and columnists, especially two of professorial standing.

Then, the Syrians identify themselves as the smallest but most powerful group in terms of their ownership and control of economic assets and their significant political influence.

The Indo-Trinidadian community today has to come to terms with some realities which have consequences for its distinctiveness, as well as its future as a group. For example, the evolutionary process of interaction with other racial groups has resulted in significant levels of intimate liaisons between Indo-Trinidadians and Afro-Trinidadians, giving rise to increasing numbers of the mixed element which constitute the fastest growing segment of the population. The corollary is that the percentage of the Indo-Trinidadian population is on the decline.

Then there is the religious migration of hundreds of Hindus and some Muslims to the Pentecostal churches, which diminishes the role and influence of Hinduism and, to a lesser extent, Islam in the Indo-Trinidadian community. Additionally, there is the generational issue of the estrangement of younger Indo-Trinidadians from the cultural practices, perspectives and discipline of their parents and forbears and the attraction to what they deem mainstream culture and modes of enjoyment and self-expression. Moreover, the migrants and earlier generations of Indo-Trinidadians have been characterised as having some positive attributes such as the work ethic, the capacity for sacrifice, perseverance and resilience, the sense of independence and limited reliance on the State, the premium placed on thrift, the eschewal of current consumption and deferral of gratification and the commitment to family and community. There is very little doubt that today these values are not embraced with the same tenacity or at all.

As a group, Indo-Trinidadians now constitute the largest single minority in the population. At 36.5 per cent, the figure is marginally greater than that for Afro-Trinidadians. Given these numbers, the burning question is whether Indo-Trinidadians exercise any significant influence on general policy prescriptions, public sector decision-making and the determination of national goals and direction. Then there is the issue of whether they enjoy a fair representation as owners and controllers of the dominant sectors of the economy such as energy, petrochemicals, finance, large-scale manufacturing, construction and commerce, tourism, transport, maritime facilities, infrastructure and lucrative real estate.

It would appear that their presence is quite limited in the upper reaches of the government bureaucracy, state enterprises and statutory authorities, as well as in the large private sector organisations and conglomerates. In the social and cultural arenas, in the media, in sports, especially football and athletics and in local advertising and entertainment programmes, Indo-Trinidadians hardly seem to feature.

Given that poverty levels are more or less the same nationally for Indo-Trinidadians as well as for Afro-Trinidadians, it is a matter of speculation as to how much attention is directed by targeted public social programmes and private sector and state-funded NGOs towards alleviating poverty among Indo-Trinidadians. If, indeed, there is a significant Indo-Trinidadian representational imbalance in many areas and sectors, it is a matter for investigation whether this has been due to conscious discrimination or unconsciously due to the understandings and assumptions of the place of Indo-Trinidadians in the historical evolution of social structures and relationships of exclusion or due to the lack of competence, aptitude and inclination on the part of Indo-Trinidadians.

The academic success of a small segment of the Indo-Trinidadian population at the primary and secondary levels or dominance in the two professions of medicine or law, or a notable involvement in small and medium business and agriculture, represent but a limited presence in the national, social, political and economic landscape of the country.

Trevor Sudama


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